Using Exercise to Support Mental Wellbeing
The Charlie Waller Memorial Trust has recently launched their #RunForWellbeing campaign to support young people with mental health difficulties
Andy Caress, a mental health trainer with CWMT, shares his experience of mental health and how running helps him
When you’re struggling with your mental health, getting out and exercising can feel very challenging. For those of us who struggle with illnesses like low mood, depression and anxiety, even the most everyday tasks can seem overwhelming, and tackling activities like exercise can seem out of reach. During these periods, it’s important to remember that they won’t last forever, and to try, as much as possible, to prioritise whatever physical activity is manageable, as it isn’t just about your physical health – it’s about your mental wellbeing too.
Throughout my life I have experienced ongoing difficulties with my mental health. I have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and have experienced depression, which, at times, has been incapacitating. During these times, I have found it really hard to motivate myself and, without proper support, my focus on physical activity deteriorated as my mental health did. Something I’ve found helpful in recent years, however, is running and, importantly, the social support that the sport provides. With the help of the running community, not only have I been able to find a way to manage my mental health, but I have gone on to run marathons and even organise a few events for charity too!
My experience also helps to inform my work as a mental health trainer for Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, where I work with young people, their parents, teachers and guardians to equip them with the skills to look after their mental wellbeing. For over five years I have worked in schools colleges, universities and workplaces across the UK to deliver free mental health education for as many people as possible. Every day is different, and I’ve delivered workshops to a wide variety of audiences and in a range of settings – I’ve done a lot of work around general mental health awareness, but also on suicide prevention, and deliver regular body image and self-esteem workshops too.
During these workshops and talks, we focus on five key steps to mental wellbeing:
- Be active
- Keep learning
- Connect with other people
- Give to others
- Be in the moment
It sounds very simple, but these wellbeing tricks can have a big impact on a person’s mental health. Creating healthy habits – that are easy to stick to – is so important for keeping your mental wellbeing in check, and can help prevent deeper issues developing.
For me personally, the ‘be active’ and ‘connect with other people’ aspects of this framework are particularly valuable. Running outside – on the trails or with my dog – is one of the best ways I’ve found to clear my head and boost my endorphins. I always feel better after a run. The thing that really keeps me on the right track, however, is the supportive community that comes with running.
Because of running, I have been able to surround myself with a wonderful group of people, who regularly arrange meet ups and events. This community feel, combined with the mental lift that exercise provides, makes it much easier for me to manage when I’m struggling with my mental health. When I was in my mid-20s (I am now 35) I took up running and tried to get fitter, but it all kind of just slipped away when my mental health deteriorated. I never thought I’d run a marathon, but it’s been fantastic to have had the opportunity to experience one. I have the people in my local running community to thank for that.
When you’re struggling, it’s easy to fall into a negative cycle. You are unmotivated to exercise, and in turn, don’t reap the mental health rewards of physical activity. Many people will tell you to “just get out there, just do it”, but sometimes it’s not that easy. Sometimes you need someone to provide ongoing support, and take it step by step with you, quite literally, to get you out of the door. A short, brisk walk around the block with a friend can be all you need to feel a mental lift – and this can kick-start a positive cycle, where walking turns to regular exercise, endorphin boosts and social interaction too. Having a group of people to regularly run with – and hold you accountable when you don’t turn up – is one of the most motivating things, and helps eliminate the temptation to fall out of this positive cycle.
Because of the running community, I have also been able to try my hand at running event organisation, and this has added another layer to the mental health boost running provides – not only have I been able to help raise money for charity, but I have helped other people find salvation in running too. Last year, I helped organise the Beat the Black Dog charity 10km trail run in aid of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust. The event was held to commemorate World Suicide Prevention Day 2019, and brought together over one hundred runners of all backgrounds, experience levels and ages. Many of those who took part had lived experience of mental health issues, or had lost family members to suicide. For everyone involved, the opportunity to join together, enjoy running together in the South Wales valleys and take time to speak about their experiences was an emotional and heartwarming day. We are hoping to repeat the event this year.
Although I’ve spoken a lot about running, exercise in any form – whether that be running, swimming, cycling, yoga, dance, anything – is both a good preventative measure and an effective self-help mechanism for mental health issues.
If, like many people, you are looking for a way to be more physically active, my advice would be to take it easy and make it fun – not everyone is going to run marathons, it’s about finding whatever works best for you. That might just be as simple as getting off the bus a stop early or trying to walk to work on some days. Importantly, look for local fitness and running groups or a regular gym buddy. Running and exercising on your own can be really difficult, so find someone to do it with you.
Earlier this year, Charlie Waller Memorial Trust launched its #RunForWellbeing initiative which aims to raise awareness and create conversation around exercise and wellbeing by asking people to share personal stories on social media of how exercise has helped them with their mental health, using the #RunForWellbeing hashtag. This is an enormously important initiative, which I hope will inspire more and more people to speak out about their experiences, and encourage others to feel the same.
Charlie Waller Memorial Trust is a national charity partner for the Saucony Cambridge Half Marathon 2020, and has a team of 50 runners who are fundraising for the charity, while championing the #RunForWellbeing initiative. More information on fundraising for the charity can be found here: www.cwmt.org.uk/cambridge-half-marathon-2020
Set up in memory of a young man who took his own life, the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust aims to help people recognise the signs of depression in themselves and others, to equip young people to look after their mental wellbeing, and to ensure expert help is available when needed. The Trust reaches thousands of children and young people, their teachers and parents through its free mental health education and training in schools. It also gives training in universities, colleges and workplaces, and to GPs and nurses, aiming to lessen the stigma around depression, improve treatment and reduce the number of suicides.